Opinion

opinion | Mark Pothier

The unlikely legacy of Margaret Trudeau, Canada’s former first lady

Andy Warhol and Margaret Trudeau at Studio 54 in 1978.
Richard Drew/Associated Press/file
Andy Warhol and Margaret Trudeau at Studio 54 in 1978.

The role of first lady hasn’t changed much in modern political times, starting with the hopelessly outdated title. She’s counted on to be a personality counterpoint and sometime surrogate for the politician in charge: quietly accomplished, unfailingly maternal, unwaveringly loyal.

But more than 40 years ago, a first lady north of the border defied such categorization. In March 1971, Margaret Sinclair, 22, became Canada’s youngest first lady when she married Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. He was nearly 30 years her senior. Today, Margaret Trudeau, 67, is mother to Canada’s prime minister designate.

Justin Trudeau and his family will soon move into Ottawa’s 24 Sussex Drive, the prime minister’s residence, a place where Margaret never felt at home. She preferred less formal surroundings such as New York’s Studio 54, the cocaine-coated palace of 1970s decadence. Photographs of her partying alongside the likes of Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, and Grace Jones were published worldwide.

Scandalous rumors swirled. Many proved true. Then came March 4, 1977, the Trudeaus’ sixth wedding anniversary. Margaret marked the occasion by hanging out with the Rolling Stones at the El Mocambo club in Toronto, where the band played a surprise show. It was later revealed that she and Pierre had separated earlier in the day.

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“To the rest of Canada, to the journalists and newspapers of the world, my escapade was yet another example of what a wicked wife I had become,” she wrote in her 1979 memoir, “Beyond Reason.” She later wrote: “If I can’t be a role model, maybe I can be a dire warning.”

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But 36 years later, Margaret Trudeau occupies a different public profile. After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she has become a prominent advocate for mental health awareness and treatment, using her story to chip away at the stigma.

Even before the election, her growing influence was apparent. Campaigning last month, Justin Trudeau vowed to increase government spending on mental health services. Sometimes the least likely role models turn out to be the most effective.

Mark Pothier can be reached at mark.pothier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @markpothier.